Athens hotels are full because Decatur hotels are full, a tourism official said, and the overflow has led to demand for more places to stay in Athens.
Athens hotels often benefit from tourism in neighboring cities, mostly Decatur. Now a 38,000-square-foot, 75-room Fairfield Inn & Suites is under construction on U.S. 72 near the Interstate 65 exit in Athens.
“Anytime a new hotel is developed, it means all the hotel rooms are filled,” Athens-Limestone County Tourism Association President Jeanette Dunnavant said.
Decatur Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tami Reist said Decatur’s tourism is healthy, but events often bring in larger crowds than the city’s lodging can handle, which means out-of-towners are routed to hotels in other cities. Dunnavant said she often works directly with Reist to book rooms in Athens for Decatur guests.
“We want to see them in our neighborhood,” Reist said. “It’s sad when we have to book them elsewhere.”
Reist said sporting events hosted in Decatur see the most overflow. About 200 youth teams from 12 states and Mexico and El Salvador, each needing to book 10-15 rooms, played at the Open Cup soccer tournament at Jack Allen Recreation Complex in May.
Some team families told the Daily in May that staying in a hotel outside the city was inconvenient. Tournament organizers required teams to choose from bureau-approved hotels around the area and as far as Cullman.
Morgan County has 1,679 rooms, with 1,366 in Decatur. The last hotel built was the Courtyard Marriott in 2001. Athens has about 800 hotel rooms. Madison County has about 7,000.
Most hotel developers use industry analyst Smith Travel Research to determine which cities are good investments.
STR rates hotels in cities based on occupancy and room rate, and developers often look at those numbers to determine whether a hotel would be a good investment in the city.
Reist said Decatur hotels tend to have low room rates, which can lead to weak ratings.
To combat the ratings, the visitors bureau developed a new advertising package to hotel chains that shows prime development locations in the city and touts local restaurants and amenities like Point Mallard Park and Ingalls Harbor.
“We’re trying to take some of the legwork out for developers,” she said. “The idea is for franchises to go to developers and tell them Decatur seems like a good place to build.”
Reist said she worked with a real estate agent to pinpoint areas where hotels could do well, like riverfront property and empty lots on Beltline Road.
“There was a time when the recession hit when banks wouldn’t make loans to hotel projects,” Reist said. “That’s changing now, and developers are starting to build again.”
One of newly elected Decatur Councilman Chuck Ard’s campaign platforms was Decatur’s lack of rooms. He said many of the hotel guests in the city are corporate representatives who want high- end lodging.
“There are recreational guests, too, but most of them come on weekends,” Ard said. “There’s a question of whether or not we can fill the rooms when the recreational guests aren’t here.”
Community and Economic Development Director Wally Terry said the city would benefit from a hotel designed for long-term stay.
“There are a wide range of different kinds of hotels, and I think there is a need for different kinds,” Terry said.
Terry said the city’s solution to the problem is Reist’s advertising campaign. He said the city has never had an incentive program for hotels.
Dunnavant said hotels with reward programs are popular.
Fairfield is part of the Marriott brand, which has such a program.
She said another reason Athens is seeing increased tourism is the city’s many festivals, like the Sept. 29 Grease Festival, and coming events like the annual Storytelling Festival and Fall Festival.
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